Monday, March 26, 2012

The Undebateable Undateables

Last week, a poster appeared in London advertising a TV show called The Undateables, which reads "Love is blind, disfisgured, autistic..."  I'm not going to talk about the poster and the programme here; Matthew has already, Sarah has, Lisa has twice, the second time at Liberal Conspiracy. There's also been a timely article at the Guardian on disability and on-line dating. But I wanted to talk about how the discussion of things like "How The Undateables is the most offensive piece of Channel 4 advertising since Bigger, fatter, gypsier." gets stuck when we begin to address the problems of disabled people in finding love.

Being romantically irresistible is part of my impairment. It is embarrassing and it sometimes makes it difficult for me to be with other people. They often swoon, break into song, or tear roses from nearby bushes to make into thorny and often bloody bouquets to give me. As a result, I have been single for precisely four days since I was eighteen and even that can be put down to a particularly painful period.

However, I have had reason to contemplate my place in the mire of dating and romance over the years. Before my impairment was properly diagnosed, back when I thought people were staring because of the wheelchair and that light of my life was just another term of casual affection between strangers like pet or sweetheart, I thought I was likely to spend a big chunk of my life single. My ex-husband often told me that he was going to leave me (my condition is very difficult for any partner) and detailed many unattractive attributes in an attempt to reassure me that I wasn't quite as lovely as medical science seemed to suggest. When I looked towards the future, I imagined that I would probably end up being alone.

In a way, this was a helpful exercise. I knew I couldn't live alone and the obvious solution would be to live with friends. Because I'd talked about this with my friends (in the context of if, not when), I had more than one offer of a place to live when I finally decided to leave. Well, two serious offers, one "There's woodland at the back of my house where we could build a den!"

The other way in which it was helpful was that I thought a lot about the prejudices that get between disabled people, romantic happiness and sexual fulfillment.

Attraction is largely involuntary - no individual can be castigated for who they fancy or fall in love with - but there are very few universals. There are one or two around body-shape, but we only see this in data using responses to images, rather than sexual or romantic behaviour. In general, we learn what attractive men and women are like through culture; how fat or thin, how tall or short, what kind of hair they should have on their heads and bodies and how they should behave. This stuff varies a lot around the globe.

So prejudice like disablism and racism certainly interferes with this stuff. It's just impossible to say how much and in what way. Famously, the Observer Sex Survey in 2008 found that 70% of people questioned said they would not have sex with a person with a physical disability. I've used this figure myself, but personally, I think this expresses more about disabled stereotypes than behaviour. After all, most disabled people I know are partnered. I could be wrong, but I reckon if you showed people flattering images of disabled people with a mixture of physical impairments, smiling and having fun, and then asked the question, the response would have been far more positive. If you got people to have a five minute conversation with a selection of specially-selected extra-charming disabled people and then asked the question, you'd almost certainly get a minority expressing a preference.

As it was, many people may have simply thought, “Would I have a sexual relationship with Stephen Hawking?” and the answer came back the same as my response: Astrophysics has no place in the bedroom.

One of the problems dissecting the issue is the way discussions of disability and romance tend to pan out. When someone complains that they feel they're not getting sexual or romantic interest for almost any other reason, whether it's race, weight or age, something religious or cultural, the job they do or being a prince, then there are almost always people there to argue that they are hot and it's not such a big deal. There are always people who come forward to say, "I'm in the same boat, but I've found love and am living happily ever after." or "Well, you seem lovely so I'm sure you'll find someone soon." or even, "Could this all be down to a lack of confidence/ luck/ opportunity?"

But when say, a wheelchair-user talks publicly about problems finding love, the responses tend to come like this:
"I am also disabled and have given up on love. Everything you say is true. Nobody wants us. Everybody hates us!"

"I am disabled but I am lucky enough to have found a partner who is prepared to put up with me, without once suggesting a romantic weekend in Switzerland. I am so very very very very grateful to them, for without their compassion and no small degree of masochism, I would be entirely unloved and alone like you!"

"I find wheelchair users highly attractive, but you people are always so frosty when I send you e-mails detailing my wheelchair-related sexual fantasies. Then you complain nobody is interested!"

"I'm really sorry to read your experiences, and hope that one day you might meet someone who is prepared to see past your impairment, to see past any equipment you use, to see past any body parts that are at all iffy. In fact, to see past your face, body, brain, any idiosyncrisies of your mind and personality, through to the real, beautiful, non-disabled person who is somewhere trapped behind all that. Good luck!"

"It's much harder for disabled men, as men are supposed to be tough, strong and physically active, and we're supposed to go out and earn a living. Women can be physically weak and not work and still be considered attractive."

"It's much harder for disabled women, as women are supposed to fit a very narrow standard of physical beauty, and we're supposed to be able to have energy for looking after other people. Men can be physically imperfect and need some looking after and still be considered attractive."

"Why don't you think about dating other disabled people? They're bound to be more understanding. Simples!"

"@lastcommenter Why should disabled people date disabled people?  Other disabled people are completely hideous! Just because I'm disabled, why should I be content with someone who looks a bit funny and can't get up stairs?"

"Have you thought about using a sex-worker? When money is involved, it's much more difficult for someone to say no and they're all good at pretending to like you so they can get the whole thing over with quickly. It's your right to have sex!"

"You think you've got it bad? I have only one eye, so not only am I rejected all the time, I have trouble gauging just how far a person has walked away from me. There are loads of examples of sexy wheelchair-users, but when do people with one eye get a look in?"

"Evolution dictates that disabled people just can't get laid. That's why disabled people never ever marry or have children."
And so on.  Of course, most comments will be empathetic, but few people will actually argue with the idea that the disabled person can't find love because they are disabled (unless they launch into complete denial that it makes a difference to anyone apart from a rare and obvious bigot). Sometimes, especially when it is someone I know and like, I get very tempted. But it is very difficult to say the right thing.

The dangers are:
  1. Coming across as patronising. Disabled people are used to being patronised and most disabled people have a very finely-tuned patronimeter. At the best of times, it can be hard to reassure someone that they are sexually attractive without seeming to patronise, even when you mean it (unless you're prepared to make love to them on the spot. Even then, it's not fool-proof.)
  2. Coming across as creepy. Disabled people often encounter creeps of various kinds, some deeply sinister, others simply disconcerting. When someone is lonely and at a low ebb, there's no kind of creepiness, even accidental, that's going to make them feel less than awful.
  3. Coming across as questioning someone's experience. Disabled people are used to having their experiences called into question. A lot of tact is required to help untangle someone's genuine experience of rejection, or statements people have made about their supposed unattractiveness, from whether or not they are fundamentally undesirable. 
  4. Coming across as dismissing social injustice. Which we're also quite used to. There are some political circumstances which really do complicate relationships and potential relationships for disabled people, as Lisa outlines
  5. Coming across as playing Privilege Top Trumps. If I wasn't romantically irresistible, it would be immensely difficult for me to form romantic relationships. I'm rarely able to leave the house, I can't drive or self-propel a wheelchair and I can't use my powerchair for long periods. I couldn't date anybody and very few people would be interested in working round that stuff in order to get to know me. But even if it wasn't for my clinical loveliness, I could never say to anyone, "Well, I found love and I'm a lot worse off than you are." because impairment and prejudice is so complex. I know I do have some advantages over Lisa, for example, (e.g. my impairment had little effect on my physical development and my bisexuality gives me a much larger pool to work with) or the pseudonymous Stefano (e.g. I'm better at avoiding inadvertent innuendo - "apart from one thing, very low maintenance" - he he he).
And yet, this subject is important. Not everyone is interested in sex or romance and many people are happy being single (although usually, happy people feel it's a choice). However, for anyone capable of sexual or romantic feeling - single or attached - to feel undesirable is a terrific blow to one's sense of self-worth. That's not vanity or anything shallow, it is part of our identity which feels damaged, inferior. It makes us more vulnerable to creeps and abusers (experience makes me shudder when I read those comments about the immense gratitude some disabled people feel towards a partner just for not abandoning them). It makes us feel less valuable altogether and makes all the battles we have to fight for survival and social progress so much tougher.

I think I may have to write a second post on how we might combat this, apart from the usual, "Magic some confidence from somewhere, damn it!" 


Anonymous said...

I just found this blog and I think I love you. You are a great writer.

The Goldfish said...


Thank you! :-)

spacedlaw said...

Some years ago (15 or so), I fell in love with a guy in a wheelchair. Really head over heels in love.
My mother got a litle worried because of this: she knew -as I did - that such love affair would come with a huge responsibity.
I think she was relieved when it didn't work out: turned out he was in love with another girl.
My plight wasn't so uncommon: Plenty of people were in love with him (and I bet still are, too).

Peri said...

My good friend is married to a man in a wheelchair - they met on a Tom Waits forum many years ago. He's American, she's English. Sometimes, when I see her caress his face I am reminded how beautiful and warm and gratifying it is to love and be loved so completely. My friend told me that when she applied for a fiancé's visa for her now husband, officials were dubious of their relationship. But anyone who sees them can be in no doubt they are, even all these years later, very much in love.

Anonymous said...

As an former Oucher spurned by the beeb, I wonder if there is any link between ATOS having the IT contract with the beeb and the closure of the much loved board?

Shiloh said...

Hey if you're doing B.A.D.D. this year, count me in.

Anonymous said...

hm mm thats an extremely intriguing post to read! great writing too.